Taxpayers to foot bill for toxic waste at river refuge

Nicquel Terry
The Detroit News

Trenton — State taxpayers will be on the hook for the clean up of old barrels holding toxic chemicals as well as contaminated soil discovered along the Detroit River at the site of the former Chrysler Corp. Trenton Chemical Plant, officials say.

Contractors were doing construction for the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge Welcome Center when they found the barrels last year. The refuge includes nearly 6,000 acres along 48 miles of the lower Detroit River and western Lake Erie.

Now the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, along with the Environmental Protection Agency, will be responsible for covering the cost of removing the polluted materials, said Keith Owens, a spokesman for Wayne County.

The construction project is currently shut down until findings from collected samples can be reported, officials say.

Wayne County purchased the site in 2002 for $1 million through a federal financial assistance award, Wayne County officials say. From 1946 to 1990, the property was the site of Chrysler Corp.’s manufacturing facility.

The county was aware of the buried pollutants when it bought the site. Chrysler had remediated the property based on the requirements of the MDEQ, Owens said.

“The MDEQ will sample the drums once removed and determine how to properly dispose of them,” Owens said. “Our first priority is the health and safety of the patrons that will use the recreational amenity once open.”

The MDEQ could not be reached for comment.

County officials said the barrels at the site were crumbling, and soil and groundwater tested high for contaminants chlorobenzene, phenol and heavy metals.

Human exposure to chlorobenzene can cause numbness, hyperesthesia and muscle spasms, according to the EPA. Short-term exposure to phenol can cause irritation to the eyes and skin, the agency said.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles said it had no responsibility for the lingering pollutants.

“Records indicate that the former Trenton Chemical site was deactivated and closed nearly 30 years ago by the now-dissolved Chrysler Corporation, which donated the property to the International Wildlife Refuge after the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality approved the completed environmental remediation conducted at the site,” the FCA said in a statement.

In a 2005 report by DaimlerChrysler, the German automaker that once owned Chrysler, highlighted the problems of reclaiming an industrial site and “turning it into a model ecological and social project ...”

“But it can be done, as DaimlerChrysler helped prove in Trenton, Michigan,” said Greg Rose, senior manager of Environmental Risk Management at Chrysler Group.

“Today the 44 acres are being developed into a traditional community park with nature trails, an education center and a wildlife reserve, with no trace left of its industrial past. The reclamation of the land around the Trenton plant is a tribute to DaimlerChrysler’s commitment to the environment.”

Staff Writers Keith Laing and Sarah Rahal contributed.